Monday, 21 December 2020

CD Review - Over the Rainbow

Just time before Christmas to add a late review of a lovely disc I received from Convivium Records. Over the Rainbow is a collection of songs and duets performed by brother and sister BBC2 Young Chorister finalists from 2019, Will James and Kate James. There's a great variety of repertoire here, from Britten's Corpus Christi Carol, sung with purity of tone by Kate, and a surprisingly haunting rendition of Sleep by Ivor Gurney, with Will adding edge in the lower registers of his treble voice, through to effective arrangements by George Arthur of the Robbie Williams classic, Angels, and the title track, Over the Rainbow. In the latter, the arrangement has the blended voices colliding beautifully, and there's poignancy in the added cello (from Sarah Butcher). Angels again effectively matches the two voices, creating a rippling duet over a lilting piano accompaniment - played as throughout the disc by Malcolm Archer. In these lighter numbers, Will and Kate might have relaxed their
impeccable chorister diction, but these are nevertheless enjoyable renditions. George Arthur's arrangements of Simple Gifts and Were you there? also make great use of weaving and twisting the two blended voices together, and in Were you there?, he makes great use of the overlapping, clashing parts, as well as using echoes as the voices tumble over each other, and the piano tolls out the bells in the final verse. Will brings a mournful tone, and a little more expression to Dowland's Flow, my tears, and Katehe Turtle Dove, in Vaughan Williams arrangement, has more depth of tone too, with a suitably folk simplicity. There's lots more here - sixteen tracks in all - and this is a 

highly impressive collection from two clearly talented young singers. Definitely worth checking out - perhaps a last minute Christmas present, if you get in quick!

Various. 2020. Over the Rainbow. Will James, Kate James, Sarah Butcher, Malcolm Archer. Compact Disc. Convivium Records CR059.

Friday, 11 December 2020

CD Reviews - December 2020

I’ve been following the work of composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad (b.1980) for a number of years now, and it was a great delight to explore her latest disc of recordings of some of her chamber works, entitled ‘The Whole Earth Dances’. The title belongs to a work commissioned by The Schubert Ensemble, and in fact this recording was their last as a group before they disbanded in 2018. Inspired by the simple experiences of walking in her local park, but also by the importance of taking notice of nature in a time when it under such threat, it is a single expansive movement for the same musical forces as Schubert’s Trout Quintet (piano, violin, viola, cello, double bass). Full of long sustained string chords, with delicate piano commentary in places, the movement alternates between lively, spiky ‘thistles’ and gentler, unfurling ‘ferns’ (references to two Ted Hughes poems that also influenced here). And there is hope in the positively consonant, sudden C major ending. There’s so much on this disc, nine works in all, for varied chamber forces, and many different performers, it’s hard to do justice here to all of this. Cloud Movements for clarinet, violin and piano again makes use of slow-moving chords to evoke drifting clouds, but there’s also lyricism here, particularly in the central movement. Flanking that central movement are two dancing canons, the first in three parts, and the faster moving second in four parts, increasing the rhythmic complexity, creating unsettling cross-rhythms as the clouds pass and partially obscure one another. Two works for cello and piano follow. Songs and Dances is full of passion and lyricism for the cello in particular, but also there are strangely moth-like high, glassy flutterings, and a surprising folk-like dancing melody in the central movement. There are brief moments of peace, but the final lament is dominated by heartfelt anguish, and ends in nothingness. This leads beautifully into The Prophecy, where that sense of anguish is taken to a new level. Frances-Hoad was influenced here by quotes from people experience schizophrenia, and there is definitely a sense of mental struggle here. Again, the piece begins out of nothing, almost inaudible initially, and the strange slides from the cello build to a terrifying world, full of quotes of the Dies Irae chant. The cello emerges at one point with a higher, more lyrical melody, but the insistent piano doesn’t give up, with the Dies Irae almost screaming through at one point. This is an incredibly virtuosic piece for both players, and Rebecca Gilliver (cello) and Sophia Rahman (piano) give an outstanding performance. Towards the end, the cello cries out with a strange vibrating screech, and then a kind of unsettling calm is reached at the end, with occasional stabs from the piano punctuation an exhausted cello solo.Then for something completely different - Game On, a work for piano and Commodore 64 computer. In this, Frances-Hoad takes sounds from a 1987 puzzle game, X0R, and uses these to create a fascinating soundworld, exploring game theory, robots taking over the world, and ultimately, destruction of humanity - so not a cheery piece! In the first movement, Nash, we’re in the world of game theory, and a sense of uneasy equilibrium, where the piano matches and works around the incessant computer sounds, with nobody really getting anywhere as a result. In Robots will Rule the World, we enter the soundworld of Dr Who (the BBC Radiophonic Workshop), the theremin and ondes martenots, with weird lasers and ‘vaporising’ sounds - what starts out as maybe a conversation between piano and computer definitely becomes a battle - and the title gives the clue as to who wins. In the final Lament, the minimalist repeating patterns of the computer contrast with the melody that emerges on the piano, and then gradually the computer patterns stutter, jam and stick - like an irregular heartbeat, or ultimately the sound of flatlining - so who’s died, the robots or us? There is a chilling sense of panic here, despite the slightly comic origins of a 1980s gaming computer. 
Three more works round off the collection. First, a lop-sided, quirkily accented Mazurka for violin and piano. Then comes Medea for solo flute, a dramatic monologue of long sustained notes and pauses, interrupted by moments of impassioned activity full of flutters and trills, evoking Medea’s battle between emotion and decision. Finally, a work for string quartet, My Day in Hell, inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. The complex organisation of numbers of circles and groups in that work dominates Frances-Hoad’s calculations of structure, rhythm and even melody, and the angular melodic material, downward slides and richly dissonant chords definitely create a sense of being trapped in circles within circles. 
I’m always struck in Frances-Hoad’s music by how, despite some common devices, such as the contrast between slow, long chords and spikier rhythmic movement, with great use of pregnant pauses, the atmospheres evoked are incredibly varied and individual to each piece. I’ve focussed on the music itself here, but all the performers deserve praise here - there is some challenging music, and all the players do great justice to Frances-Hoad’s fascinating and often virtuosic demands.

Frances-Hoad, Cheryl. 2020. The Whole Earth Dances. Various. Compact Disc. Champs Hill Records CHRCD152.

Joël Marosi (cello) and Esther Walker (piano) have brought together on one disc all the works for cello and piano composed by brother and sister, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847). This amounts to two Sonatas, a set of Variations Concertante, and a couple of miniatures from Felix, and two single movement works from Fanny. Many of the pieces were written with their cellist younger brother, Paul. Felix’s first Sonata has a real youthful urgency in the opening movement, with slight yearning in the second subject. Walker manages to produce a bright tone despite the driving repeated chords and thick textures of the piano part, and Marosi brings out that yearning as well as a virtuosic display to finish. He really gets the chance to sing out in the second movement’s lyrical central section, and the sense of rapid drive returns in the finale, with more turbulent sections, and a dramatic climax with flourishes particularly for the piano. Both players here produce the requisite drama, but also manage the piece’s quiet ending, with delicate lyricism from the cello over a gently rippling piano. The Song without Words that follows is warm and lyrical, with a delicate piano part, and Marosi delivers this with a heartfelt simplicity, and an understated sense of urgency in the central section. The single movement Assai tranquillo, possibly incomplete, has a pleasing melody passed from cello to piano, with the cello then weaving in and out of the piano’s presentation of the tune. The Variations concertantes draw on a humble, hymn-like tune, and encompass eight variations, sharing out the virtuosic moments between instruments reasonably equally, if anything favouring the pianist. The two players here exploit their moments well, and bring out effectively the more dramatic moments, such as in the seventh’s declamatory cadenza-like statement, although there could be a little more tempo differentiation between the faster
variations. Turning to sister Fanny, we then have a Fantasia, with a beautifully romantic melody presented fist on the piano, with the cello emerging from a low accompaniment to take over the melody. There is plenty of opportunity for Marosi to sing here, particularly in the slower arioso section. The quiet ending might suggest this is somewhat slight, but the melodic invention and use of repeated chords in the accompaniment are very pleasing. Similarly, in her Capriccio, lyrical melodies are passed between the instruments, with the piano leading off on a faster central section, with emphatic fanfare-like statements from the cello. Once again, the movement winds down to a quiet finish. We return to Felix for the remainder of the recording, with his Sonata No. 2. The two players bound into the opening movement, with its striding cello theme and joyful energy and drive throughout. The piano introduces the second movement’s hesitant melody, repeated pizzicato by the cello, with delicately ringing grace notes from Marosi here. The piano is in charge of the slow movement to begin with, with an arpeggiated chorale, given rich tone here by Walker. The cello joins with a lyrical melody on top, and gradually takes over direction of proceedings, with the piano receding into the background, before stealing back the lyrical melody at the end. The piano launches the finale, with an immediately racing, virtuosic delivery. The cello occasionally takes over the virtuosic runs, but the piano is in charge here. Walker and Marosi never let up with the driving rhythmic energy, right to the dramatic explosive climax, before the dynamics drop down leaving quiet, rippling exchanges to end the piece.

Mendelssohn, F. & F. 2020. Complete Works for Cello and Piano. Joël Marosi, Esther Walker. Compact Disc. First Hand Records. FHR81.

In Louis Lortie’s sixth volume of Chopin works, 
we have the Hommage à Mozart Op. 2, the two Op. 40 Polonaises and the Fantasie Op. 49, interspersed with sixteen of the Mazurkas. Lortie’s Mazurkas are full of character, with great attention to articulation and dynamics. From the Op. 6 set, he gives the first a wonderful halting lilt, and its falling chromatic progressions have a silky darkness. The folk-like drones and eastern-infused melodic inflections in the second are seductively accentuated by Lortie’s rubato. The third and fourth are brief gems, the former with its light droning and lively theme, and the latter with its fleeting off-kilter accents, all of which Lortie brings out well. A second set of four, Op. 24 follow, with a lyrical, more waltz-like affair to begin with, contrasting beautifully with the stomping off-beat rhythms of the second. The third has pauses in almost every phrase, and Lortie shapes and times these with delicate poise, as he does the chromatic clashes and dramatic swirls of the last of the set. The Hommage à Mozart opens with a lengthy rhapsodic introduction, with hints of Mozart’s theme, ‘Là ci darem la mano’, and Lortie delivers this with suitable grandeur and virtuosic command. The theme is then finally presented more straightforwardly, followed by a brilliant set of variations, with increasingly extreme demands on the pianist’s virtuosity. Lortie dashes this off with impressive ease, and then exploits the dark drama of the operatic Adagio variation to the full, with an electric Alla Polacca to finish. Back to Mazurkas next, and the
Louis Lortie
© Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

Op. 67 set. The simple dance of the first is followed by the touching, nostalgic second – again Lortie demonstrating wonderfully his ability to achieve such contrasting moods with subtle dynamic inflections and halting rubato. That nostalgic mood continues in the third, a gently swirling dance, and the darkly expressive fourth. The two Polonaises, Op. 40, especially the first, the ‘Military’, are by nature emphatic and weighty, but this can be easily overdone in the first, rendering it a shouty affairs. Here, Lortie certainly provides weight, but with precise articulation and full use of the range of dynamics he avoids the bombast. The second is full of brooding darkness, and Lortie brings this out, as well as the wistful melancholy of the lyrical central section. A final set of Mazurkas, the Op. 41 with the first drawing invention from just a few notes, and the second evoking strumming guitars in its opening chords. The third is simple and graceful, whereas the final Mazurka of the set is the most substantial and dramatic. Once again, Lortie captures the extraordinary variety of moods like a chameleon. The Op. 49 Fantasie concludes the disc, with its funereal march launching an explosion of improvisatory explorations. Lortie is definitely let loose here, although despite the extremes of virtuosity, that sense of subtle changing moods is never lost.


(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, December 2020)

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

Refreshing Beethoven from Benedetti, Kuusisto and the Philharmonia

Pekka Kuusisto (conductor)

7.30pm, Monday 30 November (streamed online)



Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): 
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 36



Violin Concerto:
Benedetti ‘certainly paid close attention to detail, whilst never getting bogged down ... , always maintaining a refreshing lightness of touch, and a sense of the overall picture’. 

‘Her tone was open, feathery and almost breathy, certainly never weighty or cloying’.

‘The oboe ‘cadenzas’ ... in the finale were great fun, and gave a light frisson to proceedings, all part of a bright and fresh overall performance’.  

Pekka Kuusisto & the Philharmonia
© Camilla Greenwell 
Symphony No. 2:
‘Ensemble was tight, with precision in the playing, and strong attention to dynamics throughout‘.

‘Highlights included ... a gracefully shaped second movement, with a light swagger to its lilting dance section’.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.


 

Monday, 23 November 2020

Defiant celebration and emotional depth from Kanneh-Mason, Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Sheku Kanneh-Mason & the CBSO
© CBSO
Sheku Kanneh-Mason
(cello)

Recorded 10 November 2020
(Video streamed online from 19 November 2020, available until 18 December 2020 here)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham



Jean Sibelius (1865-1957): Lemminkäinen Suite, Op. 22 No. 4, Lemminkäinen's Return

Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934): Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957): Lemminkäinen Suite, Op. 22 No. 2, The Swan of Tuonela

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72b

Shake Kanneh-Mason
© CBSO
Sibelius:
'With expectant energy, Gražinytė-Tyla drove the players in rippling runs and the spiky melody, with bright brass pointing the joyful build to its glorious conclusion'.

Elgar:
'Kanneh-Mason ... commanded attention with his emphatic purity of tone from the opening chords'.

'Gražinytė-Tyla kept the orchestra on their toes as Kanneh-Mason skittered through with a deft touch'.

Rachael Pankhurst
© CBSO
Sibelius:
'The cor anglais (beautifully played with warmth and expression by Rachael Pankhurst) was the star here'.

Beethoven:
'Gražinytė-Tyla elicited razor sharp ensemble here in the rapid runs and syncopations, rising to a joyous conclusion'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.



Thursday, 12 November 2020

CD Reviews - November 2020

Violinist Kinga Ujszászi and harpsichordist Tom Foster have been exploring the riches of an amazing archive of around 1750 works from the late 17th and early 18th centuries that has miraculously survived all that time in Dresden and is now fully digitised and freely available online. Known as ‘Schrank II’ after the cabinet in which it was stored, it gives the name to their new recording, ‘Cabinet of Wonders’ - also tantalisingly ‘Volume 1’, promising more to come. The composers - Johann Vilsmayr (1663-1722), Gasparo Visconti (1683-1731) and Johann Schreivogel (fl.1707-1749) - will no doubt be unfamiliar, but the music chosen here certainly deserves the title. Vilsmayr’s Partita in E flat major which opens the disc is remarkable, not least for the extreme ‘scordatura’ - where the strings are unusually tuned to create unusual sonorities and harmonic possibilities. The opening Prelude is arresting, with a ghostly sound initially from the violin, leading into a virtuosic Presto with beautifully sweet double-stopping here from Ujszászi. There are two lyrical Arias, the second of which is particularly mournful, then a fabulous Passacaglia is kicked off emphatically by Foster here, with Ujszászi’s rasping unison double-stops (courtesy of that scordatura) reminiscent of the hurdy-gurdy. After a brief Menuett, the Finale is a real improvisatory display, with clever echo effects, and Ujszászi really takes flight here. We then have two Sonatas by Visconti, who was a pupil of Corelli’s. The C minor Sonata is full of complex embellishments, with some oddly unexpected turns in the melodic line. 
The central movement has lots of stop-start dramatic gestures, whilst the final movement is lilting and graceful, with some unusual chromatic slides in the melody. The F major Sonata has a sweetly straightforward opening movement, and a lightly dancing Allegro to follow. The otherwise delightful Adagio has some slightly odd moments harmonically, but the Finale is captivating - a set of variations on a courtly minuet, with double-stopping mimicking hunting horns. Here again, both Ujszászi and Foster enjoy the opportunity to display their virtuosic command to the full. The three Sonatas here from Swiss-born Schreivogel are perhaps the most polished compositions, with some beautifully lyrical lines for the violin. The crying suspensions in the E minor Sonata’s opening movement, and the melancholic slow movements of the D minor Sonata, with sweet trills and embellishments, stand out in particular. The final Sonata here, the only work not from the ‘cabinet’, is a later work from Schreivogel, demonstrating how the composer’s style developed. Its lyrically operatic central movement is flanked by two fast showpieces, and in the lilting final movement, Ujszászi’s virtuosic string crossing and rapid finger work is highly impressive and a delight to listen to. On the basis of this stunning offering from the Cabinet of Wonders, roll on volume 2!

Various. 2020. Cabinet of Wonders, Vol. 1. Kinga Ujszászi, Tom Foster. Compact Disc. First Hand Records FHR89.

Moving forward a couple of centuries, we enter the world of the 19th century salon for a completely different but equally fascinating collection from Vaughan Jones (violin) and Marcus Price (piano), in ‘History of the Salon — Morceaux caractéristiques (1823-1913)’. Once again, most of the composers here (fourteen in all) will be unfamiliar, apart from one or two. And inevitably, particularly with this genre of essentially pleasing and melodic miniatures, some stand out more than others. So the virtuosic energy and joyful rhythms of the two Mazurkas from Aleksander Zarzycki (1834-1895), and the heart-on-sleeve operatic sentimentality of Alfredo d’Ambrosio’s (1871-1914) Aria perhaps stand out more than, say, the admittedly sweet melody of the otherwise unremarkable Méditation by Joachim Raff (1822-1882), and the pleasing nostalgia but lack of real emotional depth of the Valse Triste from Frank von Vecsey (1893-1935) (the final dedicatee of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, which he first performed aged 13). But when performed with such commitment and virtuosic flair, as is the case here, even the lightest of offerings is a delight to listen to. There are a couple of more familiar composers here - there’s a sweet operatic Cantibile e Valzer from Paganini (1782-1840), and a lilting Barcarole with a swirling central section from Louis Spohr (1784-1859). And occasionally, the piano accompaniments rise out of the background, such as when imitating the guitar in Moritz Moszkowski’s (1854-1925) Guitarre, and in Jones’ own beautifully atmospheric arrangement of Granados’ (1867-1916) Oriental from his 12 Danzas españolas. Jones’ tone is always sweet, but he avoids sugar overload with lightness of touch and effortless virtuosity when required, such as in Franz Schubert’s (1808-1878) (not that one - a tough break to be a composer with the same name as one of the greatest composers of the time, if not ever, so he became known as ‘François’ Schubert) popular encore piece, L’abeille (The Bee). Listening to the whole collection in one go, there will inevitably be a few casualties in terms of grabbing your attention, but in isolation, each piece is a delight in its own right, affectionately performed here by Jones and Price.


Various. 2020. History of the Salon - Morceaux caractéristiques (1823-1913). Vaughan Jones, Marcus Price. Compact Disc. First Hand Records FHR80.


Chicago born pianist Steven Graff has performed and recorded many piano works by fellow Chicago composer John Carbon (b.1951), who I have to say was new to me. On his latest recording, he plays three sets of pieces, the longest, ‘Astro Dogs: 12 Zodiacal Pieces’ giving the disc its title. Before that come two shorter sets, the first of which, Madeleines, inspired by a trip to France with his sister when he was a student. As the name would suggest, these five short pieces are atmospheric, evoking memories and moods. There is a wistful improvisatory, almost Chopinesque feel to the opening ‘Mémoire triste dans un café’, and a darker, more funereal nostalgia in ‘François et ses yeux dangereux’, remembering the death of a boy they had met in Paris. The final piece, ‘Madeleine déteste les devoirs’, on the other hand, has a driving rhythm, with disobediently boisterous hints at children’s songs.
John Carbon
 The three Impromptus, clearly inspired by the pieces of the same name by Chopin and Schubert in particular, are dreamy and again nostalgia features highly, particularly in the wandering second. The third however is much livelier, with its almost mechanical syncopated dance reminding one of Prokofiev or Kabalevsky. Astro Dogs apparently follows an earlier guitar suite, Astro Cats (of course), and in the drily humorous notes, Carbon explains how each piece connects a particular breed of dog with each of the 12 signs of the zodiac. These are great little character pieces, from the quirky, even eastern-inflected melody of ‘Beagle (Aquarius)’, and the humorous rhythmically uneven ‘goofy gait’ of the ‘Labrador Retriever (Sagittarius)’, to the cartoonishly playful ‘Irish Wolfhound (Aries)’, with its energetic variations on ‘The Irish Washerwoman’ melody.
Steven Graff
‘Saint Bernard (Leo) is slow and rhapsodic, whilst hints of Prokofiev return in the prancing ‘Standard Poodle (Libra)’. I’m not sure I get the zodiac references, not being an astrology expert, yet despite being a cat person (I must check out Astro Cats), the characters of the dogs are cleverly portrayed here, and Graff brings this out with great variety of articulation and expression. A great discovery - and always a good sign when a recording of a ‘new’ composer makes me want to seek out more of their music.


Carbon, J. 2020. Astro Dogs and Other Piano Works. Steven Graff. Compact Disc. Convivium Records CR057.


(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, November 2020)

Monday, 9 November 2020

Emphasis on the lyrical in Strauss and precision in Mozart from Hans Graf and the Singapore SO


Friday 6 November 2020, 8pm SGT

(available until 20 November 2020)




Richard Strauss (1864-1949): Metamorphosen, for 23 strings

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Serenade No. 10 in B flat major, K361 'Gran Partita'

Strauss:

'There was a remarkable tightness of ensemble throughout, despite the extra distance between players'.

'A warm, accomplished performance, just needing a notch or two more on the anguish dial'.

Mozart:

'The Allegro was bright and brisk, with sharp articulation in the development’s running scales, particularly from the bassoons'.

'The central Allegretto in the Romanze ... had sprightly energy, with spiky basset horns'.

'The Rondo finale (was) taken at a healthily brisk tempo. The episodes had great spirit, with close observance of the dynamics, and the movement built to a positively joyful finish'. 

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.






Saturday, 31 October 2020

A chilling operatic tale from Frances-Hoad as centrepiece of Sampson & Middleton's impressive contribution to the Oxford Lieder Festival


7.30pm, Tuesday 13 October, 2020

(reviewed from online stream 31 October 2020)


Holywell Music Room, Oxford

Oxford Lieder Festival






Late to the party, I finally caught up today on Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton’s contribution to this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival online, and I am so glad I did - at the last minute, as the concerts are still available until tomorrow evening, so if you’re quick you can still catch this and the rest of the festival’s concerts.

The theme of the festival was Connections Across Time, and the centrepiece of tonight’s programme was the world premiere of the festival’s Associate Conductor, Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s song cycle, written especially for Carolyn and Joseph, with a text by Sophie Rashbrook, Six Songs of Melmoth.

Frances-Hoad’s happenstance inspiration for the cycle began when she picked up a copy of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent at a lending library at Bedford station, which led her to read Perry’s other novels, including Melmoth. This book in turn took inspiration from a much earlier work, Charles Maturin’s sprawling gothic tale, Melmoth the Wanderer, from 1820. The original involves Melmoth making a Faustian pact, taking 150 extra years of life in exchange for ensuring that he can convince someone else to agree to take his place, otherwise facing eternity burning in hell. So Melmoth roams through history, searching for someone to pass his curse onto. In Perry’s version, Melmoth is a woman, who seduces her victims as she crosses the centuries. Sophie Rashbrook took both versions as the starting point for her text, and across the six songs of the cycle, she takes the gender fluid Melmoth through time, and ultimately right into the present, the very singer in the concert hall presenting the final temptation to the audience to consent to join her.


Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton
(screenshot from online stream)
Frances-Hoad’s works for voice are always highly evocative, dramatic and in effect, miniature operas, and this is no exception. A gift for Sampson here, with its variety of characters, moods, and an overall narrative arc, complete with dramatic twist at the end, and she certainly relished the opportunity to demonstrate her phenomenal virtuosity as well as her ability to communicate such a complex and dark tale. Right from the piano’s curtain-opening flourish up the keyboard at the beginning of The Painting, Middleton also showed impressive command of the considerable challenges Frances-Hoad’s score presented, providing insistent pace in Shipwreck Gossip, with beautifully fluid, watery accompaniment to the long lyrical vocal lines in Elinora’s Letter, more dramatic flourishes in City of Song-Ghosts, and dark tolling in the final song, Melmoth’s Serenade. Sampson meanwhile took us through the dramatic journey with incredible intensity, and the blaze in her eyes whenever Melmoth is present was positively chilling. The eery tone of the calling voice promising deliverance, contrasting with effortless, long lyrical lines and challenging leaps right through the whole range, passed off with crystal clarity, in Elinora’s Letter. The moment of transition in Deliverance, when the singer’s voice shifts from trembling fear to crazy, wild-eyed consent was truly scary, and Sampson’s final chilling delivery direct into camera, ‘to the audience’, willing us to consent, was definitely disturbing, and hard to resist. A wonderfully striking and operatic cycle, and a highly affecting performance here - a recording must surely follow before too long.


They began their programme with a selection of five Schubert songs, and communication across the spiritual realm featured significantly here, from the heart rending lay dark Schwestergruss to the prayerful Litanei auf des Fest Allerseelen, and finally heavenly peace in Elysium. Again, Sampson shifts from mood to mood, with a desperate, ghostly breeze running through Schwestergruss, contrasting with sheer delight in her bright voice in Die Sterne, attaining bliss at its conclusion. Gott in Frühlinge had a light freshness, whereas her long, lyrical lines in Litanei and the final extended ewig in Elysium showed off Sampson’s impressive breath control. Middleton matched the moods, with warm yet solemn tone in Litanei, and rippling accompaniment building to the triumphant conclusion of Elysium.

Carolyn Sampson
(screenshot from online stream)
They followed the Frances-Hoad premiere with a selection of three songs by Satie, preceded by a beautifully liquid and limpid performance by Middleton of the Gymnopédie No. 1, also bringing out its sad, darker undercurrent. Sampson’s dreamy, fluid lines and bright eyes in Les Anges contrasted with a beautifully playful Mad Hatter in Le Chapelier. They finished this group with the sultry waltz, Je te veux, perhaps with shades of Melmoth the seductress here?

Poldowski was in fact the pseudonym of Belgian-born composer Irène Régine Wieniawska, daughter of violinist and composer Henryk Wieniawski, and she lived most of her life in London. She particularly loved the poetry of Paul Verlaine, and the five songs presented here were all settings of his verse. In Cythère, Middleton’s dancing accompaniment underpinned a playfully flighty delivery by Sampson of the brief romantic encounter, and En Sourdine was all dreamy calmness apart from a muted, brief ecstatic outburst. Sampson’s Colombine was mischievous and balletically light, whereas L’heure Exquise had a beautifully romantic, liquid simplicity. Middleton had great fun conjouring up the strumming textures in Mandoline, disappearing away ‘in the shivering breeze’ with a light flourish. 

They completed their programme with Walton’s Three Façade Settings, less well-known than the ‘entertainment’ piece with spoken voice, Façade. Daphne has a folk-like melody, and is mainly straightforwardly narrative, with hints of a rippling river in the piano part, and a brief solo voice moment at the climax as Daphne transforms into a tree. Through gilded trellises plays with lilting Spanish rhythms, with a stop-start pattern hinting at brief sultry glimpses through the trellises, whilst Old Sir Faulk (which appears in Façade) closes the group with its foxtrot rhythm and jazzy humour. Sampson and Middleton delivered the set with style and a light touch, bringing their hugely varied and challenging programme to an end. 

Carolyn Sampson
(screenshot from online stream)
Franz Schubert (1797-1828):

Schwestergruss
Die Sterne
Gott im Frühlinge
Litanei auf des Fest Allerseelen
Elysium

Cheryl Frances-Hoad (b.1980)
Six Songs of Melmoth
1.The painting (Narrator) 1816
2. Shipwreck gossip (Old Biddy Brannington) 1816
3. Elinora’s letter (some salt-water damage to the text) 1516
4. City of Song-Ghosts (Narrator reprise)
5. Deliverance
6. Melmoth’s Serenade

Erik Satie (1866-1925)
Gymnopédie No. 1
Les anges
Le chapelier
Je te veux

Poldowski (1879-1932)
Cythère
En Sourdine
Colombine
L’heure exquise
Mandoline

William Walton (1902-1983)
Three Façade Settings
1. Daphne
2. Through Gilded Trellises
3. Old Sir Faulk